Pozzallo (Italy) (AFP) – Italy’s new hardline interior minister Matteo Salvini said Sunday that “common sense” was needed to stop the country from becoming “Europe’s refugee camp” as he visited a migrant centre in the south.
The newly minted deputy prime minister in Italy’s populist coalition government travelled to Sicily, one of the country’s main refugee landing points, to push the anti-immigration platform that propelled him to power.
“Italy and Sicily cannot be Europe’s refugee camp,” he told a crowd of supporters under the blazing sun in the port town of Pozzallo, a migration hotspot.
“Nobody will take away my certainty that illegal immigration is a business… and seeing people make money on children who go on to die makes me furious,” he said on Sunday, when the bodies of 35 migrants were found on Tunisia’s southern coast.
Pozzallo is on the front line as one of the main landing points for refugees fleeing war, persecution and famine across North Africa and the Middle East.
Earlier in the day, while waiting for the head of the far-right League to speak, the enthusiastic supporters and a small group of protesters nearly came to blows.
– ‘Not take a hard line’ –
Salvini delivered his speech outside the town’s migrants centre, and afterwards went inside to meet some of the 158 people who landed in Pozzallo after being rescued by a humanitarian boat on Friday — just hours after Salvini took his oath of office.
Salvini said after being sworn in that he would ask his ministry’s experts “how to reduce the number of arriving migrants and increase the number of expulsions”.
“The good times for illegals is over — get ready to pack your bags,” he said on Saturday.
However, while he kept the fighting tone that helped spurred his rise to power, he did temper his words on Sunday when it came to NGOs organising rescues at sea, which he has previously called “smugglers” and accused of complicity with people traffickers.
“I think it’s better to spend money in the countries of origin, and now if there are NGOs that want to work for free, that’s fine,” he said.
Salvini also said the new government would “not take a hard line on immigration but one of common sense”.
His fellow deputy prime minister, leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement Luigi Di Maio, has also called rescue NGOs “taxis on the sea”, although his rhetoric on immigration is more measured than that of the League.
Salvini is on the road seeking to rally support for his party’s candidates in municipal elections later this month, as part of a broader effort to boost the traditionally secessionist party’s profile in the country’s poorer south.
– ‘Obvious imbalance’ –
European Union interior ministers will meet on Tuesday to discuss possible reforms of the EU’s controversial Dublin rule, whereby would-be refugees must file for asylum in the first bloc member-state they enter.
However Salvini said he would not be attending, as he will be in Italy’s parliament for a confidence vote for the coalition with Five Star.
Salvini has said that the rule unfairly burdens Mediterranean countries and leads to “an obvious imbalance in management, numbers and costs”.
The accord heavily penalises Italy, which has seen more than 700,000 migrants arrive since 2013.
Previously, the vast majority would continue their journeys to northern Europe, but the introduction of EU-backed processing centres to ensure migrants are identified at their first European entry point and tighter border controls installed by France, Switzerland and Austria are now creating roadblocks along this well-worn route.
A controversial agreement between Italy’s former centre-left government and authorities and militias in Libya has triggered a fall in overall arrivals of some 75 percent since the summer of 2017.
But so far this year Italian authorities have still registered more than 13,500 arrivals.